Sermon on Mark 16:1-8 and Luke 24:1-12 for Easter Sunday, C, March 27, 2016
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
When we were newly married we were poor as church mice, so we jumped at the chance to house-sit for a year. We were living in in Cincinnati, the headquarters for Proctor & Gamble. A P&G engineer had been assigned to work at their plant in Brussels, Belgium, so he and his family packed up, and we were left to tend to their house. I thought of them, as I considered that among the 31 dead after the ISIS attacks, two were Americans. Somehow that memory helped me connect with the grieving Belgium people.
The people of Brussels have been doing what the people of Paris recently did, and what people everywhere do after a tragedy; they are putting up make-shift shrines. They bring flowers. They light candles. They post messages of solidarity. They defiantly assert hope in the face of death.
It is a bit ironic. Europe has become famously post-Christian. Atheism is common. One of the big reasons people give, is the problem of evil. How could God allow the Holocaust, or any unjust suffering? Mass death drives many away from belief in God. So, it is ironic that in highly secularized Brussels, the instinctive, impulsive, urgent thing that people do, after a mass killing, is make shrines for the dead.
We all have this sense that our lives are grounded in a depth dimension that is hard to put into words, but we feel it. There is something ultimate and good that makes our lives meaningful, even the lives cut short tragically by terrorism, or by accident or disease, or even by the tragedy self-inflicted means.
I believe that the shrines people make say something deep about ourselves as mortals who die but whose lives mean more than tragedy. But shrines alone do not have any content.
Typically, the way we humans understand our lives and their meaning is by narratives. We tell stories. The Christian way of working out what life means is focused on the Jesus stories. The greatest of all our Christian stories is the story of resurrection.
Differing Perspectives, Similar Message
Today we read resurrection stories from two gospels. Clearly they reflect two different perspectives. From the perspective of the gospel of Mark, at the empty tomb the three women are greeted by a single mysterious individual dressed in white who gives them a message about Jesus.
From Luke’s perspective, there are three named women plus “the others” who are not named, and they are greeted by “two men in dazzling clothes” who give them a message.
In Mark, the women go away in fear, not saying anything to anyone about the experience, as they were instructed to do. In Luke, the women all go immediately and tell of their experience to the disciples who are reluctant to believe them.
The differences multiply when we read the other gospels, Matthew and John, showing again different perspectives.
Anyway, though these resurrection stories differ, they witness to a reality that Christians experience. You can see it in the similar line that they both share. It comes in the words spoken by the one, or the pair of apparently heavenly messengers to the women.
“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” Mark 16:6
“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
In other words, Christ is not a feature of the past, but of the present. Do not look for Christ among the dead. But how then do we encounter the risen Christ? Immediately, the messengers say one of the ways in which Christ can be a present reality for them, saying,
“Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee” Luke 24:6
Remembering His Teaching
We celebrate the presence of the risen Christ as we remember what he told us. The Spirit of Christ is present for us. His words are alive in us. They fill us with joy and hope. We hold the teachings of Jesus as central.
The Risen Christ teaches us, through the remembered words of Jesus, to trust that the kingdom of God is here, now, wherever and whenever people live as if God were king, in other words, compassionately and justly.
Christ teaches us about God; to conceive of the Creator God of the universe, the ground of being itself, not like Aristotle’s emotionless, omnipotent, unmoved mover, but in the analogy of a loving father. A father looking down the long road for the return of his lost son or daughter. And upon their return, the father does not scold or shame, but embraces them with infinite love and mercy.
Christ teaches us, through the remembered words of Jesus, that we can live lives of trust, like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, because our lives are grounded in God who is essential goodness.
Christ also teaches us that this grounding in goodness does not magically spare us from life’s pain and tragedy, but just as Jesus faced injustice, violence and death, with trust in God, so we believe that God walks through our lives with us, even suffering with us, all the way to the end.
Christ in Practice
As followers of the teachings of Jesus, the spirit of the risen Christ is present to us in powerful ways as we put his teachings into practice. Christ becomes more present and more real to us as we have experiences of turning the other cheek, going the second mile, giving to the one whose needs makes a moral claim on us.
We remember that Jesus taught us that we would encounter him, the risen Christ, in the guise of those whom we call, “the least of these”. He said we meet him in those who are hungry, when we feed them, and thirsty when we provide clean drinking water for them.
Christ teaches and becomes present to us in moments when we forgive, even as we have been forgiven. The Spirit of Christ is that force coaxing us towards the good, the beautiful and the true, luring us to love with infinite love, even our enemies.
Christ in Call and Redemption
In the Easter story as Mark tells it, the messenger then tells the women to remember something specific Jesus told them:
“But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
Why back in Galilee? Galilee is where the are from. It is the place where it all started. It is the place where Peter and the other fishermen first heard Jesus say, “Come, follow me.” It is the place where Jesus said to the despised tax collector, “I am coming to your house today.” Galilee is where Jesus scandalized the religious people when he, who was not a priest, and was not in a temple, said to the man, “your sins are forgiven.”
In other words, Galilee was a place of calling and of redemption. That is where the Risen Christ keeps meeting people. That is what Easter is about. I love the way the alcoholic, stand-up comic, cynical drifter, turned Lutheran minister, Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it in her book Pastorix. She says Easter is about newness.
“It looks like recovering alcoholics…like reconciliation between family members who don’t actually deserve it…like every time I manage to admit I was wrong…like every act of forgiveness and every moment of letting go of what we thought we couldn’t live without and then somehow living without it anyway. New is the thing we never saw coming—never even hoped for—but ends up being what we needed all along.” (p. 174)
There are a lot of people in this room who can attest to the Galilee moments we have experienced, moments of powerful calling, and moments of rescue and healing; moments of God “loving us back to life again” as Nadia put it. We have encountered the risen Christ. Each of us has our own version of the story, our own sacred story, just as the different gospel writers did.
So, we encounter the risen Christ as we remember his words, as we meet him in “the least of these,” and in our Galilee moments of call and of redemption. There is another way Jesus told us that we would meet him; it is when we gather around a common table, and break one bread, and share one cup. As often as we do this, we do it, Jesus said, “remembering me.”
This table enacts what we believe: that Jesus is real for us now. The spirit of the risen Christ is here in this event. As we break the bread we remember that Jesus was broken, giving himself in opposition to the domination systems of injustice and exclusion, both materially and spiritually. Sharing this broken bread we acknowledge that we come not out of worthiness but we come together in our brokenness and pain, and find healing and redemption.
At this table we reenact what Jesus taught: an open table that excludes no one. Where everyone has a place; a table for men and women, citizens and aliens, rich and poor, gay and straight, old and young, able bodied and challenged, all together on one basis alone: that we are loved in an infinite love by an Ultimate Reality we call God, and whom we experience as the living risen Christ.
So this is the Easter story that shapes our lives, that gives meaning to our suffering, to our mortality, even to our tragedy. That we are held in an infinite love, as Jesus taught us. That we are created to love and be loved, to be renewed and redeemed, and to reach out with justice and compassion.